Two years ago, Turkish Ambassador Sukru Elekdag and his wife, Ayla, were greeted at the home of a Dallas businessman by their hosts' idea of a Turk: a huge black man brandishing a sword and wearing blue pantaloons, a fez and earrings.

In Mobile, Ala., another well-meaning businessman once asked Elekdag if he traveled with his various wives on a rotating basis. "As a joke, I told him Ayla was my favorite, and I had left the others behind," Elekdag recalled, laughing. "He believed me, and Ayla was furious."

So goes the diplomacy business in America.

If the No. 1 industry in this city is government, the No. 2 may be diplomacy; there are hundreds of diplomats representing 150 nations here. One of the main things they do all day is cut through national stereotypes and half-baked history as they carefully seek to mesh their countries' interests and the United States'.

This is a series of articles about diplomacy, but not about the formal part of it, the forbidding world of policy options, closed-door meetings and grandly phrased communiques. It seeks instead to describe the everyday diplomatic process, using the example of the Turks. Based on more than 70 interviews over three months, it watches them as they cope with their national image, fend off enemies, tackle the mysteries of Congress and the State Department, buy arms, float loans and court U.S. business, explain their homeland to the United States and the United States back home. The process is polite, but the business is hard-headed.

Proud of being business-suited NATO members and resigned to monogamy since 1926, the Turks, like most foreigners, are accustomed to explaining to ignorant Americans who they are and where their country is.

At the same time, Turks admit that their ordinary citizens "think the United States looks like the old Doris Day-Rock Hudson movies and that there are cowboys and Mafia shootouts everywhere," as journalist Yener Arioglu put it. Newly arrived Turks are astounded that the clash of the three branches of government in the United States means things are working as expected and, like many other foreigners, they are mystified by the lobbying process.

Turkey, "the least-known U.S. ally," as Elekdag likes to say, is on the brink of leaving poverty, just learning how to market its exports and lobby Congress, a military regime talking of democracy and heavily in debt, all situations it shares with many nations.

But Turkey is also a major cog in the U.S. defense machine, a source of NATO troops whose toughness awed GIs in the Korean War. It is a giant U.S. ear on the Soviet Union and a guard at the northern gate to Arab oil fields, and its influence and many of its problems result from that position. Like every nation, it is unique and universal at the same time.

Turkey, whose population is about 45 million, has endured terrorist attacks and political upheaval as many nations have. Turks, whose Central Asian origins and 4,000 years of history echo in names such as Attila, Genghis and Mehmet (Mohammed), have ancient quarrels with their neighbors, especially Greece and Cyprus. Westerners have tended to associate Turks with "everything that was violent or savage," Elekdag told an Atlanta gathering.

"During the Middle Ages, pestilence, floods, earthquakes, Turks and comets were listed as the traditional punishments reserved by the Almighty for sinners," he said. "In the 16th Century, Martin Luther prayed to be delivered from the world, the flesh, the Turk and the devil. Few peoples in history have been put in such company as this."

Turks complain that Americans seem prejudiced not only against them but against all military governments, while the Turkish armed forces, a meritocracy for centuries, have always been trusted at home as the best governors.

The current generals are in power as the result of a 1980 coup. But the military tradition of command and obedience, common to uniformed envoys from scores of nations, does not always translate well into diplomatic negotiations.

"Low-level Turkish officials can't make even very minor decisions," a Defense Department official complained. "If we send a low-level delegation to negotiate, their low-level people will agree to anything we say. But then nothing happens." Businessmen complained that only Cabinet ministers seem to have the authority to give final approval to export-import licenses and joint ventures.

Other than when its spats boil over into NATO or the United Nations, Turkey, like most countries, rarely receives much media attention here and, like most nations, finds this galling. It has its own prejudices.

In Turkey, one can buy a world map showing Turkey in the center with the United States split down the middle, half on each side. Most nations share this feeling of importance at others' expense, but in Turkey the attitudes of an imperial nation are dying as hard as they did in England.

"We still relate to the world like Ottoman generals," said Asim Erdilek, a U.S.-educated Turkish economist here. "We remember that foreign tax collectors plundered Turkey in 1881, and we are suspicious of foreigners and foreign trade, especially European."

Arioglu noted that the Ottoman Empire, which endured from 1453 to the end of World War I and covered all or parts of 20 modern nations, included most of the Arab world. "All that oil used to be ours," he lamented.

Another journalist, Ali Birand of the newspaper Milliyet, said he was astonished to learn during a visit to the Soviet Union that Turkish is the second largest Soviet-language group and that more people speak Turkic dialects in the Soviet Union than in Turkey.

"You can't help it, you know it's crazy, but you start thinking, 'We have to liberate these people, these are Turks!' " he said, laughing.

When Turkish President Kenan Evren, an army general, visited Pakistan in 1981, he toured a camp of Afghans who had fled the Soviet invasion. He was surprised to hear refugees calling out to him in Turkish dialect and proudly told his countrymen later that Afghan Turks were leading resistance to the Soviets. He arranged for 400 refugees to move to Turkey and, when they arrived to heroes' welcomes, they bent and kissed the soil.

Americans tend to be impatient with ancient grudges such as those between Turkey and Greece, Britain and Ireland, India and Pakistan, but other nations have long memories. James Spain, ambassador to Turkey under President Carter, said ordinary Turks "tend to look down on Iran, the Arabs and other Moslems as conquered peoples," a view some Turks privately confirm.

Congressional staff members often get the impression that Turkish officials "feel it's beneath their dignity" to push a viewpoint, as one put it. "They think we should look at a map and automatically agree with them."

To polish this rough image and to boost tourism, Turkey hired the Doremus & Co. public relations firm of Washington and New York, one of several that specializes in representing entire nations. For $150,000 a year, mere pennies in this field, Doremus Vice President Charles Pucie regularly counsels the Turkish Embassy on speech texts and position papers, checking for English tone and vocabulary nuance.

"Results for a country aren't measurable like those for a toothpaste," he said. "People still confuse Turkey with Iran or Greece."

He arranges Elekdag's speaking tours, composes magazine ads and posters and publishes a regular newsletter. He handled an instant press conference when Turkish terrorist Mehmet Ali Agca was arrested in the shooting of Pope John Paul II in Rome two years ago.

"We just suggested which news organizations they should call. The important thing was to make clear to the world that this wasn't any action by the Turkish government nor was it a reflection of popular sentiment in Turkey," Pucie said.

Doremus represented Jordan in 1977 and 1978, coordinated two Washington visits for the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and for Sudanese leader Jaafar Nimeri and conducted research programs for Japan and Spain. "Relations come in all sizes, durations and schemes of compensation," Pucie said. "Some countries are too slimy for us to handle." He refused to elaborate.

Like most nations, Turkey also has a government tourism office in New York. In fact, there are 197 members of the Association of National Tourist Office Representatives, which brings government tourist agents together regularly at lunch to discuss seminars on air fares, travel writing and publicity techniques. There is also a European Travel Commission where 23 nations' representatives discuss ways to lure more U.S. tourist dollars to Europe.

"We have themes and slogans in competition, but we also cooperate on joint ads," said Kamil Muren, head of the tourism office.

Turkey's tourist literature avoids mentioning the fact that most of its fabulous ruins, more extensive than those in Greece, are Greek. But so were one-sixth of its 1.5 million tourists in 1981, more than from any other place. Posters have tended to show minarets at sunset and crumbling forts dating from the Crusades, but new ones feature Greek ruins and attractions in more remote areas, Muren said.

"People think all we have is mosques. They think Turkey is Istanbul," he said. "I'm going to change that."

NEXT: Getting Washington's attention.